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Get Real

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He’s silver-haired and distinguished. She’s cute and toned. They’re sitting in beach chairs watching the sunset, or maybe walking hand in hand along the water’s edge. They’re relaxed, contented, affectionate. They’re retired.

We’ve all seen this stereotype in retirement planning ads and brochures. But with the baby-boom juggernaut now beginning to roll past 65, the authors of two perceptive new books say that advisors need to help clients prepare more realistically for what retirement will be like.

“I think our profession tends to paint retirement as being too pretty and unrealistic,” says Robert Laura, president of Synergos Financial Group in Howell, Mich., and author of “Naked Retirement.” “It’s often depicted as an idyllic life of leisure filled with contentment and joy. But just like any other phase of life, it can come with a dark side that’s not usually discussed and rarely planned for.”

Laura’s eyes were opened when he was discussing plans for his book with a local doctor. One of the biggest issues with retirees, the doctor said, was addiction.

When Laura did more research, he was stunned by the “hidden epidemic” he discovered in the shadows of retirement. Even though I’ve been a couples therapist for over 40 years and a money coach for more than 25 (and am a boomer myself), what he presents in his book shocked me as well:

  • The proportion of older people treated for a combination of cocaine and alcohol abuse tripled between 1992 and 2008, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
  • Nearly two million of the 35 million Americans age 65 or older suffer from depression, according to the National Institutes of Health. Depression is the most significant risk factor for suicide among the elderly.
  • Suicide rates are highest among people over the age of 65, according to the American Association of Suicidology. In fact, white men age 85 and older have the highest annual suicide rate of any group.

“I’ve been in the retirement planning business for almost a dozen years, and nothing like this has ever come across my desk,” Laura says. “Almost 100% of traditional retirement planning is focused on dollars and cents, instead of preparing clients for what everyday life in retirement may look and feel like, and actually lead to.” The horrifying statistics told him that financial professionals need to help clients prepare for much more than just the financial aspects of retirement.

Step One on Getting Real: Ask These Questions

As Laura points out, the most familiar forms of retirement planning are left-brain-oriented. In “Naked Retirement,” he advocates using the right brain to visualize retirement before crunching any numbers. For every hour invested in traditional retirement planning, an equal amount of time should be spent on discussing issues that will be important during those years, such as replacing one’s work identity, establishing a healthy and active lifestyle, staying socially connected and involved, and resolving relationship wants and needs before they create tension and conflict.

Laura adapted George Kinder’s popular three questions to help clients identify what’s truly important about retirement. Those three questions:

  1. Imagine that you have enough money to take care of your needs, now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything?
  2. Imagine that your doctor says you have only five to 10 years to live. You won’t feel sick, but you’ll never know when death will come. What will you do? Will you change your life? How?
  3. Now imagine that your doctor says you have only one day left to live. Ask yourself: What did I miss? What did I not get to be or do?

Then Laura asks clients to write out what a perfect day, week and month would look like. For example, are they going to have lunch with their spouse every day? If they’re single, how are they going to stay socially connected to the friends they used to work with? The most common response he hears is “I never thought about retirement like that.”

“That’s what it’s all really about,” Laura says. “Taking a different, more creative and intuitive approach to planning that truly helps clients plan for every aspect of retirement, instead of leaving them holding a binder full of charts and numbers on their first day of retirement.”

To reinforce the shift in focus from dollars and cents to everyday life in retirement, he goes even farther by encouraging clients to prepare a “curious list” and a “saving grace account.”

A Curious List, Not a Bucket List

Depression and addiction in retirees is often provoked by loss of their work identity and feelings of being unproductive or unfulfilled, which tend to lead to diminished self-esteem. Laura feels it’s possible to head off this situation by developing a “curious list”: a list of things that people are curious about and would like to learn more about during their retirement.

“A good curious list should support a balanced retirement, which includes mental and physical health, social activities and financial well-being,” he says. Unlike a “bucket list,” which suggests a definite commitment of time or energy, a curious list simply identifies subjects retirees would like to explore further at some point in their lives. Laura points out that curiosity creates motivation, leading to new experiences and knowledge that can be useful in increasing retirees’ sense of personal worth.

An added benefit of going through this exercise in a group or workshop setting is that it can stimulate participants to brainstorm ideas and add to their own curious lists. Laura suggests that clients compile a list of at least 20 “curious” items before they retire.

The Saving Grace Account: Who Can You Count On?

Much like an emergency cash reserve, Laura’s saving grace account is meant to provide security in the face of a challenge, such as the loss of a loved one, financial hardship, a medical diagnosis or a difficult decision. It consists of identifying three to six people who can be counted on for emotional, physical and spiritual support.

Who can the client turn to when times get tough? Who can they call when they’re feeling down and need cheering up? Who provides wise counsel? Who might they turn to for financial assistance? Who could help them move into a retirement community or nurse them back to health after a knee, hip or shoulder replacement? “This support network may be just as important, if not more important, than a financial savings account,” Laura says.

Current Retirees Need the Same Help

It isn’t just pre-retirees who need help visualizing what they want their retirement to be about. “A lot of people who are already retired attend my Naked Retirement or Retirement Wellness workshops for community groups,” Laura says. “They’ve thought about retirement as primarily a financial event, without considering all the other aspects of their everyday life.” He recommends that these folks, too, write down their responses to the workshop exercises and discuss them with their partner or, if they’re single, with friends.

The exercises in Laura’s workshops are about clarifying what retirees want to do and communicating what they learn with friends and intimates. Getting input and commitment from other people is vital. “For example, you may want to visit the grandkids for a couple of weeks, but it may be disruptive to your children’s lives to stay that long,” he says. “So honest communication about this up front is crucial. If people don’t communicate, they’re going to get tripped up, and it will cause problems.”

Surprise! Married Couples often Disagree

Communication about retirement is especially crucial for couples, who may have different time lines or expectations or want to pursue different paths. Transforming individual needs and wants into a shared vision is the focus of a comprehensive new guide, “The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Transitioning to the Second Half of Life,” by Roberta Taylor and Dorian Mintzer.

The book came about because the co-authors realized that despite the economic downturn, many couples weren’t talking together about finances and other issues related to retirement—a potentially major factor in the high levels of post-retirement depression and other negative behaviors noted by Bob Laura.

Although “retirement” appears in the title, Taylor and Mintzer don’t believe that retirement is a well-delineated phase of life any more. “We use the term ‘retirement transition’ because it’s a journey and a process, not a destination,” says Mintzer, a psychotherapist and life transition and retirement coach who founded the Boomers and Beyond Special Interest Group to explore aspects of successful aging.

“Puzzle” is another key word in the title. “The 10 ‘must-have’ conversations we’ve identified are like puzzle pieces that go together differently for each couple,” Mintzer explains. “For example, finances will impact lifestyle decisions; health and wellness also impact many of the others. And couples need to puzzle it out together.”

Taylor, a psychotherapist and coach, now specializes in retirement transitions. She points out that while it’s important for a couple to talk about their retirement finances, they need to begin by focusing on what their goals, dreams and priorities are at this stage of life; when to retire; where to live; what responsibilities they will have to other family members; how they will take care of their changing health care needs; and how to find purpose and meaning in their lives.

In the absence of this communication, a relationship can flounder. Taylor tells the story of a good friend who believed passionately that her life’s purpose was to live and work in Africa. When she had an opportunity to go to Uganda, she lived in a village, built a school and started a microloan program for women. Her husband, a physician who was still working, didn’t share her dream. “They were able to work it out, but it was very difficult,” Taylor says. “They spent many months apart, which for many couples could easily have resulted in divorce.”

[Read more about ways to help couples get more in sync.]

The 10 Must-Have Conversations

Unlike a conventional “how to retire” book, “The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle” is a user-friendly guide to help couples develop or enhance their skills in discussing potentially difficult subjects. Before writing it, the two authors conducted focus groups with couples. Themes that came up over and over led to the 10 “must-have conversations” that the book is structured around:

  1. If, When and How to Retire
  2. Let’s Talk About Money
  3. Changing Roles and Identities
  4. Time Together, Time Apart
  5. Intimacy and Sexuality
  6. Relationships With Family
  7. Health and Wellness
  8. Choosing Where and How to Live
  9. Social Life, Friends and Community
  10. Purpose, Meaning and Giving Back

Each chapter ends with exercises that allow readers to clarify their individual vision for themselves, and then to create a shared vision with their partner that integrates what each one wants and needs for this next stage of life. Although it’s best if both members of the couple are on board and agree to this process, it’s not unusual that one partner needs to take the lead. In fact, a new approach from one of the partners can initiate a different pattern of communication between the two.

Taylor says, “We know that in committed relationships, people can get very polarized and only see their own point of view. When you’re in that polarized place, you can’t be creative about problem solving.” So in Taylor and Mintzer’s process, one person talks, the other one listens; and if they don’t understand, they can ask for clarification. Once they know each other’s individual vision, they can start looking at the places where they agree and the places where they diverge.

“What we want people to come away with is that it’s possible to come up with solutions and a shared vision,” Taylor says. “But it does require empathetic communication, commitment to the process and each other.”

Mintzer advocates setting a time to sit down and follow the book’s guidelines, which often leads to more productive and respectful communication, problem solving and creative compromises. The process is ongoing. “What you need and want at age 50 or 60 may be different from what you need or want as you get older,” she says. “So your shared vision needs to be fluid with varying time lines.”

How to Make Retirement Better

Life planners may find the holistic view of “The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle” particularly useful. It can also be a helpful resource when things come up that investment advisors feel are beyond their expertise. “Let’s say a couple is talking about whether to downsize,” Taylor suggests. “One wants to move to Mexico, the other wants to stay where they are. They’ve got to find a way to work that out. The advisor could refer them to the chapter on communication, or the chapter on deciding where and how they want to live.”

She notes that all the book’s chapters are related to the financial, in the sense that no matter what it is that clients do individually and as a couple, they need to be creative and realistic about their money. Sometimes, it’s important to ask, “How much is enough?” She adds, “Even though we have a chapter on finances, we don’t purport to do any kind of advice-giving or counsel about money. The only advice we give is that you really need to be working with a financial planner.”

[Read about a questionnaire you can use with your clients to determine their retirement readiness.]

So how can an advisor tell if a client is finding retirement rockier than they thought? Bob Laura says, “If a client is agitated, if they’re gaining weight, if they’re coming without their spouse, you can see warning signs that something problematic is coming up.”

He suggests having a range of resources available and including some of them as part of your client newsletter (“This gym is offering free classes” or “Here’s a yoga class you might want to check out”). It also helps to look beyond the customary network of attorneys and CPAs and incorporate the wisdom of professional therapists, doctors, nonprofit resource groups, and empathetic guides like Dori Mintzer and Roberta Taylor.

“I hope advisors get the training, find good tools and resources, or include other professionals in the retirement planning process to help clients learn how to replace their work identity, stay connected, and stay mentally and physically sharp,” Laura says. “As a community, we as advisors have an opportunity to redefine retirement as not just about dollars and cents, but about the whole person and all the facets of their life.”


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